BOB GARFIELD: If you happen to be a regular viewer of Al-Jazeera, you know the name and face of Tayseer Allouni. He was the network's correspondent on the ground in Afghanistan during the U.S. war against the Taliban. A year later he moved to Baghdad to cover the invasion of Iraq. He often appeared on Al-Jazeera as an analyst on the subject of Islamist terror groups. But Allouni's biggest claim to fame was his exclusive interview with Osama Bin Laden shortly after the 9/11 attacks - biggest, that is, until this week, when he was convicted by a Spanish judge of collaborating with al Qaeda and sentenced to seven years in prison. According to the verdict, Allouni used his job in journalism as a cover for activities like passing money and messages between al Qaeda associates. James Badcock covered the trial for the English edition of the Spanish daily El Pais. He says much of the prosecution rested on circumstantial evidence about Allouni's ties to Islamist extremists in the '90s when he was working as a translator in Spain.
JAMES BADCOCK: Telephone conversations, meetings, dinners, favors. He helped individuals. He would give them his house to stay in or he helped people with their paperwork, as they're immigrants from Arab countries, mostly from Syria in this case.
BOB GARFIELD: Some of the most damning evidence, I gather, occurred after he moved to Afghanistan to report there for Al-Jazeera.
JAMES BADCOCK: That's right. He moved to Afghanistan in 2000. The judge believed that he was encouraged to do so by Mustafa Setmarian, a fellow Syrian he had met in Spain. Setmarian was, by all accounts and by Allouni's own admission, working there in a terrorist training camp, and it's through Setmarian that Allouni was able to interview Bin Laden. And in Afghanistan, Allouni received some money that was sent from the group's leader, Abu Dahdah, also convicted this week. He handed to it to Mohamed Bahaiah, who is commonly held to be a messenger for al Qaeda.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the money exchange. Allouni said that it was very innocent. How could it have been that?
JAMES BADCOCK: Allouni doesn't claim to know what the money was for. He simply claims that he couldn't refuse; that these were people he knew and who trusted him, and the Muslim tradition of friendship and hospitality obliged him to go through with the act. Otherwise they would be suspicious of him and he would be out of the loop. And he admits that it was in his interest to carry out this favor because he was getting information from these guys.
BOB GARFIELD: The International Federation of Journalists criticized the verdict and said that it could lead to self-censorship by journalists throughout the Middle East.
JAMES BADCOCK: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: And the Editor-in-Chief of Al-Jazeera, Ahmed Sheikh, echoed the sentiment. He said, "From the moment the world was divided into two camps, an axis of evil and an axis of good, our job became more complicated."
JAMES BADCOCK: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: "As journalists, we have to talk to both camps."
JAMES BADCOCK: I think there's an element of truth in that for sure. All journalists know that, you know, the more phone conversations, the more meetings you have with people, then the closer you're going to get to the - the truth of that particular community. But the amount of personal contacts Allouni has had with these men for many years, long before he was actually an independent journalist, these contacts weren't really something he was using in his daily work. He hasn't really managed to explain why so many of his friends were involved in this terrorist ring.
BOB GARFIELD: James, there seem to be a number of possibilities here. One is that Allouni is guilty as charged. Another is that he was merely caught in a web of circumstantial evidence that could trap any legitimate, unbiased journalist cultivating sources in a major ongoing story involving lots of bad, bad guys.
JAMES BADCOCK: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: And the third is that he isn't a terrorist but a biased journalist with a lot of sympathy for a terrorist organization. What was your sense, having looked at the trial and looked at the evidence?
JAMES BADCOCK: Well, there could be a strong argument for the third explanation. The judge seems to have accepted some of the grain of Allouni's defense, which was that as a journalist it was in his interest to get to know members of an underground organization such this al Qaeda cell in Spain. The judge said in his summing up that journalistic truth, like all truth, doesn't come freely. And Allouni, in wanting to buy his slice of truth and his scoop, he overstepped the mark; that he actually found himself obliged to commit acts himself that broke the law and actually gave material help to this group of terrorists.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, there's this phenomenon that has been well observed over the years of beat reporters going native. And that's when, you know, the guys who cover the State Department find themselves wearing tweed sport coats with - [OVERTALK]
JAMES BADCOCK: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: - patches on the elbows and smoking pipes and when police reporters start talking in, you know, radio codes. He's "10-6" on that one. Is this a cautionary tale about the dangers of going native?
JAMES BADCOCK: [LAUGHS] Well, of course, it's natural for any investigative journalist to get as close as he can to his sources and to make those sources feel as comfortable as possible and not have to draw them out of their natural habitat, as it were. Obviously in the future, any journalist in a similar situation is going to have to think hard about what environment he's getting himself into and whether he's prepared to pay the price.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, James. Well, thank you very much.
JAMES BADCOCK: Okay. You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: James Badcock is a freelance reporter based in Madrid. He covered the Tayseer Allouni case for the Spanish daily, El Pais.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, America's Internet giants get tangled in Chinese rules - and American ones, and how OTM was hoaxed. We admit it.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
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